What a Way to Dye!

Claim:   An attempted abduction of a child from a mall or amusement park was thwarted because the kidnappers forgot to change the child's shoes.



[Collected via Facebook, May 2015]

[Click here for additional examples.].

Origins:   One of the most effective types of scarelore is the "barely escaped from the clutches of evil" variety — nothing drives home a warning better than a vivid first-person account of a narrowly-averted tragedy. The explicit warning presented in this legend is obvious: You must never, ever let your child out of your sight in a public place, even for a moment — kidnappers could be lurking anywhere, and the abduction in this example was foiled only due to the diligence of an employee (and the thoroughness of a store's security precautions).

Although this warning is undeniably good advice, the legend that presents it exaggerates both the prevalence and manner of kidnappings. A child is far more likely to be snatched by a family member or ex-spouse in a custodial dispute than he is to be the victim of a random abduction. And rarely will kidnappers go through such elaborate procedures as the ones hinted at here: luring a child outside where he can be quickly bundled into an automobile is far more effective and less risky than trying to smuggle one out the exit of a crowded public space. (Some of the examples presented above don't even make much practical sense. Why would abductors waste precious getaway time shaving a child's head — with a razor, yet — when they already had a wig in hand to disguise their victim's natural hair color and style?)

This type of tale that has been circulating for decades, always involving the kidnapping of children from family-type public places such as amusement parks and shopping centers. A kidnapper snatches a child away from an inattentive parent, drugs it, and Cartoon of the legend hustles it into a restroom; there the abductor performs a quick haircut, dye job, and clothing change on the child to conceal its identity (and sometimes to obscure its gender) and wraps it in blankets before attempting to quickly and quietly spirit the child off the premises. Meanwhile, a vigilant security force has sealed off all the exits, and the attempted kidnapping is thwarted either because the kidnapper realizes he cannot escape undetected and simply abandons his intended victim in the bathroom, or because the child's parent is monitoring the exits (in person or via security cameras) and recognizes the youngster by its distinctive shoes, which the kidnapper has neglected to change or remove.

More malevolent versions of this story end not with the thwarting of the abduction attempt, but with the discovery of the child's original clothing on a restroom floor (along with other evidence of what had transpired, such as loose hair, scissors, and a bottle of hair dye). In these versions police tell the victims' parents they are powerless to recover their children (whom they warn are probably already on their way out of the country to be used as unwilling organ donors or sex slaves), and the parents are paid off to keep quiet about the abductions. Often the payoff for the parents' silence is claimed to be something absurdly small in value, such as free passes to the amusement park where the kidnapping took place, yet people continue to take the story at face value. (Would you keep quiet about your child's disappearance for any amount of money, much less something as paltry as a few free tickets?)

The tale of the "haircut-and-dye-job" kidnappers goes back several decades and is tied to the growth of cities, the movement away from rural areas and small towns, and the increase in the crime rate that occurred in America after World War II. The small-town
communities where everyone knew everyone else, outsiders were few, and residents felt safe leaving their doors unlocked at night began to disappear; as people increasingly became part of large, impersonal urban centers, they began to develop fears about the relative anonymity and facelessness of their day-to-day lives. Several of these fears are expressed in this one legend alone: fear of crime and mistrust of strangers (you don't know everyone here; criminals could be anywhere in the crowds you encounter every day, blending in with the masses), lack of faith in the willingness and effectiveness of police protection (the police are "powerless" to recover the missing children and therefore don't even try), and distrust of powerful, monolithic corporations (these companies don't care about you or your children; they'll pay you off to make sure you don't dent their enormous profits or ruin their carefully-cultivated family image by blabbing the TRUTH to the media). Even though most versions describe the kidnappers as being caught because of their carelessness, the story still serves its function of providing a vivid cautionary tale to drive home the message that you must carefully keep an eye on your children at all times while out in public: just a few moments' slip-up can lead to disaster.

Over the years, this story has been set in virtually every type of locale where families mingle with large numbers of strangers, such as shopping malls, beaches, carnivals, fairs, and amusement parks. Since the details of urban legends tend to gravitate towards the most prominent examples of their kind, this legend has become more and more associated with places such as Disney theme parks and Walmart stores, both examples of well-known large facilities frequented by families with children, and both part of huge corporate enterprises. (In truth, no child has ever been kidnapped from a Disney theme park, and although the abduction and murder of 6-year-old Adam Walsh led Walmart to create its Code Adam protocol for locating missing children in their stores, Adam Walsh actually disappeared from a Sears outlet, and no evidence was found to indicate the abductor had made an effort to alter Adam's appearance.)

Sightings:   An episode of NBC's Law & Order: SVU ("Stolen"; original air date 12 October 2001) opens with a baby girl being kidnapped from a grocery store; the abductor takes her to a bathroom, drugs her, changes her clothes, and cuts her hair. In April 2012, a reporter for a television station in Israel was suspended after running the "attempted abduction at Disney park" rumor as a news story. That news outlet was duped by a man claiming to be the father of a 9-year-old girl who went missing at Walt Disney World and was then discovered in one of the park's bathrooms drugged and with her head shaved.

  • Sometimes the intended victim is found abandoned in a bathroom, partially disguised (hair cut, clothing changed), or implements for altering the child's appearance (scissors, razor, hair dye, wig, clothing) are found in a bathroom stall.
  • Sometimes the kidnapper is caught attempting to escape through an exit with the disguised victim (often because the parent recognizes some detail of the child's clothing the kidnapper has neglected to alter, such as shoes).
  • The child is often found to have been drugged (to make it easier for the kidnapper to alter the child's appearance and smuggle him out an exit).
Additional information:
    Kidnappings and Missing Persons   Kidnappings and Missing Persons
Last updated:   31 May 2015


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